The career-shifting tale of the Silverfish, the Grasshopper and the Butterfly

Metamorphosis is a useful metaphor for career change. I was researching it for a previous blog and discovered there are three types in the insect world.

Insects like silverfish are ametabolous and only change a bit — mostly they just grow larger. Grasshoppers and crickets are hemimetabolous and evolve from egg to nymph to adult. The change is gradual and the main difference is a nymph just lacks its adult wings. Lacewings, butterflies and moths are holometabolus and see dramatic metamorphosis — they completely transform from egg to larva, pupa to adult. The immature insects are unrecognisable from the adults — think caterpillars and butterflies.

In my Spoon by Spoon interviews I come across unique people going through many different career changes. However, I’ve noticed a resemblance between the three metamorphoses and three types of shifts.

There are career changers who don’t change their careers at all, they just work on their mind-set (the Silverfish). Others shift a little or move into adjacent types of work (the Grasshopper). And then there are those who reinvent themselves completely (the Butterfly).

Here is a story of three people. The Tale of the Silverfish, the Grasshopper and the Butterfly.

THE SILVERFISH

Steven is a Spoon by Spoon interviewee who is a Silverfish. He enjoys his work and doesn’t necessarily want to swim into another pool. Silverfish like the WHAT but not always the HOW of their work.

Steven said of his career shift, “Mine is a little bit different in that my journey took me all the way back to exactly where I was. I was just happier.” He had been dreaming of being a sports journalist since he was 10, but during his mid-30’s, after years of working in this field, he realised, “I just wasn’t enjoying it. I was doing the wrong thing entirely.”

Journalism had come naturally to him and everything he did was geared up to work. But he, “Just kept hitting the same problem over and over again. It was the realisation that it wasn’t a meritocracy. I wasn’t going to progress just by working hard.”

It resulted in difficult conversations at work and relationships breaking down. He became extremely stressed, “I literally couldn’t switch off from work. It was absolutely consuming me. And something had to change.”

Eventually he went on a career change programme and had an “aha” moment when he spoke to others. “They described what they were passionate about and their jobs. They were completely different things. When I spoke about what I was passionate about as a child, what I’m passionate about now, and my job, well, all of them aligned. It wasn’t that I was in the wrong line of work. I was just doing it wrong.”

He worked slowly to make changes, “None of it has been a sudden revelation. All of it has been just a little change here and there.” When I described to him what my research was about it made sense to him. “I knew exactly what Spoon by Spoon meant. It’s just these little things that add up to a big thing. And I think it’s a really illuminating journey.”

The biggest change was recognising his mind-set, “I realised that if I was going to progress my career, it was relationships that mattered. I was less obsessed with getting everything right. I was more concerned about the impact it was making.”

So, how is Steven now? “Once I made peace with that, everything started to roll. Everything started to just work. And I began to allow myself to just enjoy what I was doing at work, rather than worrying about where it was all leading.”

THE GRASSHOPPER

Grasshoppers jump from job to job, change sectors, do things differently. But there are similarities — core skills, key traits. Walter is a Grasshopper. He was working as a butcher, but his wife’s family were successful businessmen and he felt he couldn’t keep up. He worried his wife thought, “I’ve married a duff one here. The rest have got these big flash houses. I’m not going to get that.”

One day Walter’s brother-in-law rang him up with a job offer. He was very persuasive, “Jack your job in, we’ll give you a company car, laptop. Drive around country meet all the project managers find out what they do. Bosh, you’re done. We’ll give you 30 grand a year.”

Walter knew it wouldn’t be a good fit, “I didn’t know what to do because I knew how it would make me feel. But then what an opportunity? And I stumbled and ahhed and stumbled and ahhed and then just said, ‘Yeah.’”

He worked as a project manager for a decade but really disliked it. “I always felt a bit of a charlatan in the role. Like I was going to get found out. I’ve never felt like I fitted in with the people really.”

He got more and more anxious as the years went by. “Pressure, pressure, pressure — being in a job where the workload is so much that it’s impossible to succeed. You had to be able to handle continual small failures. Let fires burn and just deal with the biggest one. You’re dealing with fallout all the time.”

Eventually Walter was signed off with stress. It took quite some time for him to find his feet again. He set up on his own and nowadays things are working well. He turned two of his hobbies into successful businesses — professional dog walking and pet portraiture photography. In fact, his photography business is growing so quickly he needs to close the other one down. His wife is really proud.

As a ‘Grasshopper’, Walter jumped sideways — a shift that uses his project management skills, but means he can plough his own furrow. He really enjoys the work and it fits his personality much better. He has re-assessed what success means. “You don’t have to follow this expectation of what you should do through life. It could be in a very different form. And it’s better if it’s something that fits you.”

THE BUTTERFLY

Cecilia is another Spoon by Spoon interviewee and she’s a Butterfly. She worked as a corporate lawyer for 13 years but says, “I can honestly say it wasn’t a job I ever wanted to do. It was the path I ended up on due to parentsthinking it was a good idea. A lot of people go into a job, love it but then fall out of love. I never loved what I did. I was never doing what I wanted.”

She tried to make it work by, “Moving countries, moving companies, moving industry, going from private practice to in-house. Hoping that something would click so I could say, ‘now I’m doing what I love.’” But it didn’t work.

Instead Cecilia put up with being unhappy for years, “I came to accept it and just thought, well that’s life. You know, it’s work. You don’t have to love it.” It surprised her when she met people who enjoyed their work and assumed, “They were lying because how can anyone enjoy what we do?”

She often wondered whether she was the problem. “For years I thought I was a bit broken, {that} there was some stuff that was a bit wrong with me. I think I always assumed that was the case.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back came when she was offered the role of General Counsel, “The pinnacle of my career, but the idea of taking it made me feel physically sick. Ironically, it was what led me to resign.”

Cecilia understands now that the issue wasn’t her, “I wasn’t really living an authentic life. I was having to battle against this, every single day. No wonder I was exhausted. No wonder I was burning out. That’s a very emotionally, mentally and physically draining environment to be in. Now I realise there is nothing really fundamentally wrong or broken with me.”

However, this isn’t quite the end of Cecilia’s story. After resigning she had a final few “bizarre” months, as she puts it. “My lifestyle started to unravel quite a lot. My relationship started to struggle and ended. And all my belongings were in storage because I’d been living in my partner’s apartment. They all burnt down in a fire.” But she is sanguine. “The universe is saying you need to change what you’re doing because you’re not living the life you’re meant to be living.”

So where is Cecilia now? When we spoke she was heading off to Indonesia for two months of dive master training, followed by a month of yoga teacher training. Whilst these were cut short by the Coronavirus outbreak, wherever she ends up her plan is to, “Focus on doing things that give me pleasure and enjoyment. Seeing if that could lead into a career. Or it might just be a way to meet people who can open my eyes to different ways of life, different ways of living, different priorities.”

So ask yourself a question which career shifter are you?

Silverfish: Are you in a career that you actually like? Is it just the HOW that needs to shift — the way your role works, the type of culture you work in? It will be much easier to change that, than moving into an entirely new career.

Grasshopper: Can you use your skills in a slightly different environment, organisation or sector? Or just take a sideways step into something similar? No need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Butterfly: If neither of the above are you, then how exciting! Soon you’ll be flying up and away into a brand new career and future.


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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